Saturday, February 16, 2013

Franck - Les Djinns

Les Djinns (The Genie) is one of five symphonic poems written by César Franck. As with many of the symphonic poems of Franz Liszt (who is credited with the invention of the symphonic poem), it is based on a literary work, the poem of the same name by the French writer Victor Hugo. The poem was part of a collection of Hugo's poems titled Les Orientales, written in 1829.  The poem deals with the unleashing of a Djinn and the resulting storms and evil that accompany the unleashing.

This kind of supernatural being is mentioned in the Qurʾan and Islamic theology. They inhabit an unseen world in dimensions beyond the visible universe. The djinn, humans and angels make up the three sentient creations of God. The Qurʾan mentions that the Djinn are made of a smokeless, scorching fire and can be good, evil, or neutral. The Djinn of Hugo's poem is evidently of the nasty kind.

Hugo's poem is written in a form that visually depicts a swirling storm or tornado. Verse one is in two syllables, verse two in three syllables, increasing by one syllable until the middle of the poem. Then a syllable is removed from each successive verse until the end, where two syllables are in the verse as in the beginning.  The original poem was written in French. Here is part of it in English translation, unfortunately the syllables do not match the original French:

Port, walls 
And keeps 
Death’s Halls 
And deeps, 
Grey seas 
Where breeze 
Now flees: 
All sleeps.

From the verge 
Of the flow Sighs emerge— 
Night-airs blow— 
And they toll 
Like a soul 
On patrol 
With a glow. 

The loudest sounds 
Are like a sleigh— 
An elf who bounds 
And skins away. 
He leaps and flows, 
In rhythmic throes 
Springs on his toes 
Across the spray. 

Echoes and entwines 
Like the bells we hear 
At accursed shrines.
 Like a noisy crowd 
Thundering and proud, 
Sometimes it grows loud, 
Sometimes it declines. 

O God! the ghostly sound Of Djinns!—
and how they blare! 
Quick! let’s escape around 
The sunken spiral stair! 
Oh, I have lost my light! 
The shadow of the flight 
Covers the wall—goes right 
Up to the open air. 
(the rest of the translation can be found here)

The original French and the form created by the addition and subtraction of syllables can be seen at the left.  

Victor Hugo was one of the most well-known and influential of the French Romantic writers.  In addition to poetry he also wrote plays and novels (some of the most well-known novels in all of world literature such as Les Misérables and The Hunchback of Notre Dame

His works influenced not only writers in his own country but in other countries as well, such as the American writer Edgar Allen Poe. His work also influenced many  composers and he was an acquaintance of Berlioz and Liszt.  Victor Hugo was also a graphic artist as he left more than 3,500 drawings and paintings.

Franck wrote Les Djinns in 1884, and the composition is unique in that it is written for orchestra with piano obbligato - in fact it is a symphonic poem for piano and orchestra, a rarity.

Victor Hugo
As with the best of Liszt's symphonic poems, Franck doesn't try to create a musical depiction of the poem itself, but an atmosphere and feeling of the poem. It is left to the imagination of the listener to interpret the music within the context of the poem, or not. The knowledge that Les Djinn was inspired by Hugo's poem is interesting and can add to the enjoyment of the piece, but it isn't necessary.  The title of the piece, Les Djinn, The Genie, is enough to stimulate the imagination. Which is what I think a symphonic poem is supposed to do.

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